Some context: I have spent a great deal of time on tennis messageboards over the past 13-14 years (ever since my Rafa Nadal fandom -- often chronicled on this blog -- began), but the most I was ever an active participant was around 2006-2010, when the Tennis World website was on Typepad and facilitated long, in-depth conversations. During one of those phases, I had a few exchanges — including genial arguments — with a poster named “Freddy”, one of the nicer, more balanced Federer fans on the board. One exchange was particularly vivid: it had to do with sports fandom as deriving from the personality connect you sometimes feel with a particular athlete. If I remember right, Freddy was shaking his head at what he saw as Rafa’s false humility and his “sandbagging” — his habit of constantly undermining his own chances, always saying “very difficult, I’ll have to try my best, no?” even when the next match was against a low-ranked opponent.
I countered that I didn’t think this was fakery at all, that Nadal quite likely really had that diffident side to him — a side that didn’t believe he belonged up there with all-time greats like Federer. And I mentioned that in a very different context, I understood something about “sandbagging”. I was often accused of it by friends in school when I came out after an exam all depressed and hangdog-like, convinced I had done badly, but subsequently got high marks. This wasn’t dishonesty, it was how I really felt at the time. It may have been chronic pessimism, or a constant fear of letting oneself down; it’s also possible my friends were so OVERCONFIDENT — or so sure about their own answers when we exchanged notes after the exam — that there was always likely to be this sort of mismatch between our expectations and our results.
(Incidentally, I wrote about this aspect of my Rafa fandom in this First Post piece in 2011)
Anyway, I had no idea about — or interest in — Freddy's real identity (I think I assumed that was his actual name — it wasn’t self-evidently a chatroom pseudonym), and I didn’t seriously consider the possibility that he was Indian. But returning to the present and to a series of chance happenings:
* At Guwahati, I attended the “Sports is stranger than fiction” panel discussion — only because my friend Shamya Dasgupta was moderating it and because the writer Shehan Karunatilaka, whom I was meeting after a long time, was on it.
* During the session, one of the panelists, Sriram Subramanian — about whom I knew nothing beyond what was sketchily said in the session introduction—mentioned the randomness of his Ivan Lendl fandom in the 1980s, and how it led to an antipathy for Lendl’s rival Boris Becker, and so on.
* This story touched a chord, but it still wouldn’t have led anywhere — I’m not the sort to go up to someone I don’t know after a session and start chatting about something he said — except that later that evening I was sitting with Shamya at the hotel bar when Sriram came by and joined us.
* In the inevitability of small talk, I brought up the Lendl thing, and this led to a chat which created an escalating sense of deja vu: we found ourselves talking about TennisWorld and the many colourful commenters there in the good old days, and next thing I was asking him if he had ever posted there himself and what name he used… and you can guess the rest.
So here, many years after our cyberspace conversations, “Freddy” and I end up meeting in Guwahati of all places: he travelled there from Pune, I from Delhi. And even with both of us participating in the same festival, the probability of running into each other, much less having a tennis-related conversation that would connect these dots, was vanishingly small.
Moral of the story: if sports is stranger than fiction, life is stranger than sports, and lit-fests are stranger than Manmohan Desai films.
(Also, when a diehard Federer fan and a diehard Nadal fan pose together for photographs, you know the world belongs once again to the Serbian Prince of Darkness. But that's for the next tennis piece.)